A Travellerspoint blog

Mendoza, Argentina


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after an earthquake in the early 1900s, mendoza was rebuilt in a very logical manner, with wide avenues and a street grid that would make any engineer proud. to the north of the rather small city center resides a park commensurate in size to the center itself. the city and park together offer a pleasant environment for idle ambling, and idle we were for much of our stay here, as siestas, sundays, and holidays all seemed to have an intensely soporific effect on the city and its inhabitants.

mendoza is well-known wine country, and our hostel emphasized this by offering free all-you-can-drink wine 24/7. this hospitality was a bit of a double-edged sword, as it induced almost all of the hostel's guests, including us, to spend most nights at home rather than exploring the city's nightlife.

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on top of the free hostel wine, we did a bike tour of a few of the vinyards located not too far from the city center. our expedition included a guided tour of a vinyard/wine museum, which juxtaposed relics from the very first days of american wine production, such as cow-hide grape presses, with modern technology and techniques. we were able to sample the grapes going into a cabernet sauvignon before we sampled a few different varieties of the final product, which, after a long, hot afternoon, made for an interesting bike ride back to home base, where we sat down to sample yet more wine.

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most people we talk with cite mendoza as one of their most-liked destinations. we, however, were more than ready to leave after a few days.

Posted by jtwires 09:55 Archived in Argentina Comments (1)

San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina


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el calafate, el chalten, and interminable stretch of mostly unpaved highway connecting them to the rest of the world all present something of a sere beauty: nuanced purples and pastels of desert sunsets, whispy clouds, arrid landscapes. what a change bariloche offers. considered the entry point to patagonia from the north, nestled amid the southern cone's famous lake district, bariloche is a ski resort in winter and a general eden during summer. the depth and vibrancy of the greens and blues of its mountains and lakes are nothing short of stunning. if you like hiking, biking, kayaking, rafting, climbing, camping, drinking, dancing, or simply playing billiards, bariloche is the place for you. you should also pay this swiss-inspired city of 300,000 a visit if you are passionate about chocolate.

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one of the first things we did after getting our bearings was to cycle the cicuito chico, a 26 km loop which offers access to the famous hotel llao llao, lago escondido, llao llao national park and a handful of lushly vegetated trails therein, a painful amount of momentum-killing hills, and a stunning view from the top of the highest of these hills. during this trip, we somehow managed to befriend one of the local stray dogs, which amused itself by running along with us for a couple of kilometers before it finally sprawled out on the ground in front of my bike in exhausted protest.

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we spent the following afternoon kayaking to a secluded beach frequented primarily by hornets and bumblebees. here we enjoyed a civilized cup of tea and a dulce de leche pastry before booking it back to the safety and serenity of the water. other highlights of our too short stay here included a not-terrible mexican dinner replete with peach margarita, a hilarious night of billiards at an underground pool hall, and an inverted sunset wherein along the horizon a glacial, almost freon blue sliver of sky hugged the mountaintops while the firmament above it was suffused with pinks and oranges.

Posted by jtwires 11:05 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

El Chaltén, Argentina


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bid one last farewell to lonely puerto natales and then back onto the bus to cross once again the unpaved patagonian trail. time enough for a lunch of sandwiches, cucumbers, and tomatoes overlooking lago argentina and then a new bus to el chalten. and then after ten you arrive in the dark, without having bothered to arrange for housing in advance (these little details grow tiresome after a while). off the bus and on with the bag: time to scour this dusty town of 2,000 permanent residents for a bed. the search won't take long though, because these 2,000 permanent residents seem to have very little to do aside from accommodating the uncounted myriads of travellers that make el chalten their base camp while exploring the ineffable beauty of the neighboring mountains.

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hostels down here are something different than what the average backpacker might seek in buenos aires. in el chalten teenaged aussies share rooms with grey-haired germans. breakfast starts around 7, and most tenants hit the trails shortly thereafter. you will find a few camp sites scattered across the trails winding through this mountain range, but after torres del paine, they'll seem somewhat claustrophobic and inauthentic. you'll be pleased to find no 'recreational vehicles', but you might be a bit skeptical of those mess-hall sized tents embellished with travel agency decals.

but really, most of the camping you'll see around el chalten won't lie too far from the small town itself. the true charm of this place lies more in the empty winding trails and the spell-binding chalten massif visible (or alluringly invisible) from every hike you'll make. you're no dummy, so you'll have read your lonely planet/frommers/rough guide/etc. and will emit a facile 'ah-ha' as you find first-hand evidence supporting the well-reported fact that the teulehic's poetic christening of the peak as 'el chalten' ('smokey mountain') derived from the nearly-perpetual nebulous wreath which lends the rock a volcanic appearance. if you're lucky, you might even steal a few glances of chalten (also known as fitz roy -- surely renamed for some possibly good reason) denuded of its hoary halo. that would be very exciting indeed. also worth the challenge would be the 25 kilometer round trip trek to the base of the peak, a great place to admire the strikingly blue pools that humbly offer mirror reflections to the majestic spires so that they might enjoy their own beauty.

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you may or may not be surprised as well to find that the high touristy prices of dining out will inspire you to take advantage of the slightly less high touristy prices of grocery shopping and self-help cooking. your surprise might even boil over into mild frustration when you discover that finding and cooking a recognizable fresh green vegetable (lettuce and cucumber do not count!) will be much harder than you expected. who knew broccoli was such a delicacy?

it may sound simple on paper, but you'll find these meditative hikes and home-cooked meals to be utterly fulfilling, and, even though forced to rouse yourself at 4 in the morning to courageously face a 30-hour trip to bariloche after only a few days of hiking, you'll be nothing but content as you say goodbye to el chalten and southern patagonia.

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Posted by jtwires 10:37 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Puerto Natales, Chile


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from el calafate to puerto natales is about a five hour bus ride. we arrived in the small chilean town early in the afternoon, and quickly set about attending to the many details involved in preparing for a camping trip. step one was to obtain camping supplies, as we had exactly none. luckily, this city is no stranger to ill-equipped trekkers, and we were able to rent everything we needed -- tent, sleeping bags and pads, stove, cooking utensils -- for about $15 a person. next on the list was a good pair of hiking boots, which we both found without too much trouble, and then it was off to stock up on foodstuff and other supplies. a quick steak dinner and down to bed as early as possible, because we would be on a bus bright and early the following morning, heading towards the majestic parque nacional torres del paine. three hours later and we were there.

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we were lucky to have great weather for the first day. we took a shuttle from the bus drop-off point to the first campsite, where we set up our tent and prepared for a hike. and hike we did, from about one to seven at night, covering approximately 20 km throughout the day. the last 45 minutes up the steep mountain slope were a challenge, but they offered a worthy reward: once we surmounted the summit, we were treated with a jaw-dropping view of the eponymous torres del paine, mirrored by the frosty green tarn at their footsteps. the first sight of this incredible scene elicits an involuntary grunt of satisfaction, followed by a few inarticulate and inadequate attempts to express the sheer brilliance of it all -- and then, as one's mind catches up with one's reflexes, an awed silence. but we didn't have as much time to admire these towers as one might have liked (perhaps an entire day would not suffice), as we had to book it back down the mountain before nightfall and rain made our progress impossible.

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dragging ourselves back to camp on sore legs, we spent a few minutes lost in recuperation before attending to a fire and a bite to eat for dinner; progress in both these endeavors was impeded by the rainstorm that started around eight and didn't abate until the wee hours of the morning. the following day we had planned to move on to a new camp site from which we could hike to grey glacier, but a foreboding ceiling of clouds inching over the mountain persuaded us to cut the trip short and head back to the warmth of our hostel. nonetheless, the short camping trip was amazing, and will no doubt remain a highlight of the trip.

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Posted by jtwires 11:48 Archived in Chile Comments (1)

El Calafate, Argentina


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what an unexpected sense of relief stepping off the plane in el calafate to look out and see the empty steppe stretch out across the horizon. apart from short stays in colonia and rosario, we have spent all our time in cities of two million people or more, visiting some of the largest metropolises in the world. and to touch down at el calafate's one-plane airport, to look around and see nothing but wind-blown grass, rolling hills, and a few dirt roads was like experiencing a sudden drop in blood pressure after an extended bout with metaphoric hypertension. here we were, in the heart of patagonia, near the end of the world, the gelid lago argentina looming in the distance, the unfamiliar sound of silence blanketing the tiny town of 20,000 people.

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we had upgraded a forty-hour bus ride to a three-hour plane ride for about $50, and, while weary from a lack of sleep the night before, we found ourselves with time to catch a shuttle to our hostel, nap for a few hours, and catch a bus from the hostel to the astounding perito moreno glacier, some seventy minutes away. it is only the third largest glacier in the parque nacional los glaciers of argentina, and yet it is perhaps the most famous due to its constant battle with lago argentina. it advances a few feet every day, but it also disintegrates at a roughly equal rate, so that it remains more or less in a constant state of equilibrium. reaching an average of sixty meters above the water, it offers spectators an amazing show as giant chunks of ice the size of office buildings break off with resounding fulminations, crashing into the icy green water below. we took a catamaran to get a closer look, and then spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the sights from the observation decks.

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the following day we took a tour of the patagonian steppe, lead by one of the most knowledgeable guides we've yet encountered. here we learned about the geologic history of the area, saw fossils and otherworldly rock outcroppings, and generally enjoyed the sensation of being out under the open sky, away from the madness of big cities. at times this place reminded me of landscapes from colorado, while at other times it presented such an alien aspect that, coupled with the realization that this is patagonia, i was subject to periodic moments of an exhilaration verging on giddiness. and the amazing color of the glacial water that filled lago argentina was a sight to see in its own right.

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Posted by jtwires 11:30 Archived in Argentina Comments (1)

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